News & Opinion

Tour lives up to hype in year of surprises

ATLANTA – It’s Thursday morning, and I’m seriously tired of FedEx Cup week. Nothing personal against the Feds. I like East Lake, I like watching the world’s best players tee it up here and I enjoy the actual golf.

It’s those FedEx Cup points and their combinations. I don’t care for the “control-their-own-destiny” lines about the top five players on the points list (which I really don’t care about) who, if they win the Tour Championship, are guaranteed to win the FedEx Cup.

I also am fatigued by the myriad other FedEx scenarios. You know what I mean. You’ll be hearing them all week on the telecast. “Joe Schlabotnik wins the FedEx Cup title if … he wins the Tour Championship; Bryson DeChambeau finishes tied for third or worse; Justin Rose finishes no better than a three-way tie for seventh; the Patriots switch to a prevent defense; the Yankees start a lefty; the rural areas turn out to vote in greater numbers than in ’16; and the South – or the creek-don’t rise."

All of that stuff will be eliminated next year with a new format that goes to a staggered start, with scoring done relative to par.

Here’s the one remaining problem with the FedEx Cup finale: No matter what happens here at East Lake this weekend, it’s not going to be A Day That Shook Golf. Well, unless Tiger Woods wins the Tour Championship. Then it’ll be TigerMania 3.0 and Official Very Important History.

Otherwise, minus the necessary math, it’ll be just a very nice opening act for next week’s Ryder Cup in France, and that’s OK.

Also, no matter what happens here this weekend, it’s going to go down as a very good year for golf.

There’s the financial aspect. The PGA Tour condensed its schedule so that it will finish before Labor Day, bumped a few events to the fall and, somehow, juiced up the FedEx Cup to stupid numbers – from $35 million this year to $70 million next year. Unless the bottom falls out of the roaring economy – and my 20 shares of Amazon say it had better not – that prize-money increase is the most bullish sign for golf since Woods threw down his walker, got back on the golf course this year and almost won a couple of major championships.

There’s the suspense aspect. Golf is at its most watchable when it is unpredictable (excluding the peak of the Tiger-wins-again-by-six Era). I rate 2018 among the most surprising and therefore compelling seasons in recent years, although Jordan Spieth’s Grand Slam chase and the rise of Jason Day in 2015 is right up there, too.

Think about it. Surprise after surprise was sprung on us this year. It was as if April Fools’ Day married Groundhog Day.

Phil Mickelson won a World Golf Championship at 47 and made a record 12th Ryder Cup team in large part because of that victory. And, oh yeah: he beat Justin Thomas, the reigning PGA champion and a young gun, to do it. In another year, that could’ve gone down as the No. 1 highlight.

Woods came back from surgery and competed while, ho-hum, a big chunk of the free world watched and held its breath. A year ago, he barely could stand without wincing.

Patrick Reed won a close Masters over Rickie Fowler. Reed is an official Ryder Cup villain for European fans, and no one expected him to knit himself a green jacket out of thin air like that.

Brooks Koepka won the U.S. Open and PGA, which means that three of his four career victories are major championships. That’s .750, even a better batting average than two-time U.S. Open champion Andy North, whose .667 mark included a win at Westchester. The two biggest shocks about Koepka: Why doesn’t he win every other week, and how is he not the No. 1 player in the world?

There’s another one. Justin Rose ascended to No. 1 after losing a playoff at the BMW Championship. With Dustin Johnson atop the rankings for more than a year and Thomas carrying a PGA Championship on his resume, who figured either one of them would be dislodged from the top spot? Yet, Rose is in sudden full bloom.

Last year, we had Xander Schauffele rise up and win the Tour Championship. This year, we’ve got surprises such as Tommy Fleetwood, who has the best hair in golf (sorry, Jim Furyk!) and Tony Finau, who ranks No. 3 on the aforementioned confusing points list.

The biggest surprise of all, excepting Woods, remains the man in the pole position for this weekend’s action, Bryson DeChambeau. Nobody saw that coming.

DeChambeau has a thing for science and has tried to use his thirst for knowledge as a way to improve his golf. It’s working. He won three times, including twice in the FedEx Cup series, and is a Ryder Cupper and bona fide new star.

After a less-than-satisfying showing at Aronimink in wet conditions at the BMW Championship, Bryson DeScience worked on hitting balls out of wet grass that he sprayed with a hose to see exactly what had gone wrong. That is pretty cool, in a nerdy kind of way. He’s the only golfer, to my knowledge, who has ever mentioned “the Newtonian mechanics scale” in a news conference, and probably the only one who can solve calculus problems. It’s well known that he plays with a set of clubs that are all the same length, about 6- or 7-iron length, a unique approach on Tour. He’s making science work for him, a proprietary edge all his own, and creating a fortuitous byproduct in building his own unique brand identity.

There have been scientific students of the game before such as Bobby Clampett, Mac O’Grady and Phil Mickelson, to name a few, but no one has taken it to the level of DeChambeau, a Southern Methodist University alumnus. He has an engaging personality, and he’s not running from who he is, a lab rat trying to solve golf.

Asked what his perfect day off would be, DeChambeau laughed and answered, “I don’t really take days off. My brain doesn’t let me.”

And more: “My joy comes from the knowledge that I gain on the golf course… I’m very fascinated with trying to figure out all the variables in the game of golf… It’s a quest for me.”

I will not be using a calculator in the media center to try to keep up with the FedEx Cup points permutations this weekend. I am going to enjoy watching DeChambeau and the rest (that’s a new phrase for golf!).

So, no matter what happens this week at East Lake, it will have been a surprising and memorable year of golf. I’m good with that.

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: gvansick@aol.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle